If the most recent polling is to be believed, Thursday’s unintended and unwanted European Parliament elections will have been a disaster for the Conservative Party. We may well fail to have a single MEP returned. The Labour vote, too, will have been drastically reduced, as voters abandon the two main parties, principally in favour of one that has existed only for a few weeks.
The reason is obvious. Despite being told it time and again, the UK did not leave the European Union on 29th March. As soon as the Prime Minister opted to extend Article 50 and so necessitate the UK’s participation in these elections, the sense of betrayal – which had been long brewing – overflowed. When Mrs May compounded that sense by opening the door to a second referendum on Tuesday, it erupted. One by one, the 17.4 million people who voted to Leave the European Union had seen each and every promise which had been made to them since the referendum broken.
In 2015, the Conservatives promised that, if elected, we would hold a decisive referendum on the UK’s EU membership. The party was returned to government with more votes and MPs. When the then Foreign Secretary – a certain Philip Hammond – introduced the legislation to the Commons to bring that promise about, he exhorted MPs:
“…to give the British people the final say on our EU membership in an In/Out referendum… The decision about our membership should be taken by the British people, not by Whitehall bureaucrats, certainly not by Brussels Eurocrats; not even by Government Ministers or parliamentarians.”
The Government then spent £9.3 million of taxpayers’ money during the referendum campaign telling every household that: “This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.” After the referendum, in which more people voted to Leave than have ever voted for anything in British history, the 2017 Conservative Manifesto pledged that the UK would leave the Single Market, the Customs Union and the jurisdiction of the European Court. Page 36 said that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
In her fateful “Charing Cross speech” this week, the Prime Minister’s “ten-point” offer starkly laid out the extent to which those promises have been reneged upon. The legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement remains unchanged, as she confirmed to me in the House of Commons this week. That means the Backstop remains, fundamentally altering the constitutional status of Northern Ireland by keeping it permanently locked to EU rules, overseen by the European Court of Justice.
The Prime Minister said that, should the Backstop be triggered, a disparity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be resolved by having Great Britain follow EU rules as well – simply multiplying the number of people sharing in the misery. In any case, we would remain aligned to EU rules for goods, severely hampering our ability to forge an independent trade policy. It was an interpretation of Taking Back Control warped beyond all recognition.
Mrs May’s decision that she was not now the person to find a new way forward was, of course, the correct one.
But her departure, and with it that of her Withdrawal Agreement, will not be enough on their own. The radical shifts in voting intention – even in long-held party allegiances – in recent weeks demonstrate that there is an accelerating appetite for genuine political change and realignment. If the Conservatives want to survive, we have to change course, deliver a genuine Brexit as we promised and demonstrate that when we make such totemic promises to the electorate, we will keep our word. We will simply not be listened to on any other issue until the UK leaves the EU and we fully take back control.
Immediate action is required on the part of the incoming Prime Minister. Of chief importance will be returning to Brussels to tell them that the current Withdrawal Agreement is dead and then seeking a wide-ranging, zero-tariff, zero-quota Free Trade Agreement, of the kind offered by Donald Tusk in March last year.
That offer initially foundered on the question of the Northern Ireland border. But the work of the European Research Group, built upon by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group alongside senior European customs professionals, has provided robust solutions to guarantee continued seamless trade based upon existing techniques and administrative processes. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has expressed confidence that arrangements can be implemented to avoid new border checks. Even Michel Barnier has now confirmed that in any scenario the Belfast Agreement will continue to apply and “there will be no hard border” using our alternative arrangements.
There is, therefore, every reason that the UK and the EU ought to be able to come to a mutually-beneficial trading relationship. If, however, the EU refuses, then the next Prime Minister must be prepared to leave without a deal. The extraordinary success of the Brexit Party is testament to the public enthusiasm for this approach. Indeed, a recent ComRes survey found that two thirds of those expressing an opinion agreed that “if Parliament rejects the Withdrawal Agreement, then Parliament has to accept no deal as a consequence”.
There is nothing to fear from this “Plan B” outcome. First of all, the arrangements for the Northern Ireland border were devised without prejudice to the nature of the trading relationship. They are available and can be effective in any event.
Secondly, “no deal” is a misnomer. What we are really talking about is a WTO deal – leaving the EU without a formal Withdrawal Agreement but instead with a series of pragmatic mini-deals.
The WTO approach has often been criticised on the basis that very few countries trade on “purely” WTO rules. It is true that many micro-agreements exist between countries without a formal trade agreement, but it is important to keep these in perspective.
The EU does not, for example, have a trade agreement with the USA, but 147 side-deals are in place. Of these, most are multilateral agreements such as the Air Transport Agreement (to which the UK is also a party) and only 31 of the bilateral agreements have any relevance to trade.
The EU also has 97 micro-agreements in place with Russia, on which it is currently applying economic sanctions. It is surely ridiculous to suppose that the EU would be unwilling to replace many micro-agreements with the UK.
Indeed, as the former Brexit Minister Chris Heaton-Harris confirmed, unilateral and bilateral preparations for “no deal” are “well advanced”. The European Commission similarly confirmed in March that its preparations for “no deal” have been completed.
Air travel will continue. The EU confirmed in November that it would continue to allow UK airlines to fly over, land in and return from EU airports even if there is no Withdrawal Agreement, provided the UK reciprocates. Baroness Sugg, the then Transport Minister, confirmed this reciprocity in March when she told the House of Lords that: “Measures put forward by the UK and the EU will ensure that flights can continue in any scenario; deal or no deal.”
Medical supplies will arrive. The President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Professor Russell Viner, confirmed in a message to 19,000 doctors:
“I have been considerably reassured by governments’ preparations relating to medicines supplies…Governments, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the NHS have been working hard behind the scenes… and we believe that our medicine supplies are very largely secured.”
Cross-Channel trade will continue. The continuing Remain campaign has made particularly alarmist claims of a country completely cut off from the rest of the world, but they are nonsense. The Chairman of the Port of Calais, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, has robustly refuted suggestions of disruptions to freight. Xavier Bertrand, President of the Hauts-de-France region, dismissed the scaremongering completely: “Who could believe such a thing? We have to do everything to guarantee fluidity.”
Sensible measures can be straightforwardly implemented in the best interests of both the UK and the EU, mitigating any potential disruption.
Most significantly of all, it is important to remember than “no deal” need not be an end state. Indeed, even without a Withdrawal Agreement, both sides can agree to a transition period maintaining our current zero-tariff, zero-quota arrangements while a new trade deal is negotiated. Under Article XXIV of the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, this can be achieved by the UK and EU both agreeing to a Free Trade Agreement and notifying the WTO of a sufficiently detailed plan and schedule for it. As David Campbell-Bannerman has pointed out, such an “interim agreement” need be little more than an agreement to continue talks.
The incoming leader has, therefore, a clear remit on how to proceed. One thing is absolutely certain. There can be no further extensions to Article 50. Failure to meet the 29th March deadline has been near catastrophic for the Conservatives. Any further delay would surely prove fatal.
Any new leader must say, completely unequivocally, that we leave on 31st October at the latest, whether or not we have a new deal. We must seek to negotiate a wide-ranging trade agreement, but we must be prepared, if necessary in the interim, to go to WTO terms. We must also correct a significant mis-step by giving absolute clarity that EU citizens resident in the UK will continue to have the right to live and work here in any event.
The new Prime Minister and the new Cabinet will face a difficult task, but one which can be expressed very simply. If it wants to have any hope of bringing back the members and voters it is currently haemorrhaging, and if it wants to have any credible claim to believe in democracy, it must make good on the promises which the outgoing Government has broken. It must repair the trust which the mistakes of its predecessor have so profoundly eroded.
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